Charlie Samaha fell in love with South Side and helped guide it
Prophets, so they say, are not without honor except in their own land, and South Side has its share of these forgotten visionaries from the 1960s and ‘70s who laid the groundwork for today’s successful neighborhood.
Charles Tanoose Samaha is one of them.
Charlie came to South Side from New Orleans and got a job at the J&L steel mill. In the mid ‘60s, he noted the mill winding down and increasing numbers of Carson Street businesses closing. He loved the neighborhood and didn’t want to see it become a ghost town.
What could he do, he wondered, to help fill the growing business void?
Charlie collected antiques. He thought South Side, with its long-time residents who treasured family customs and traditions, might be a natural location for antique dealers. After all, he realized, except for a smattering of such shops in much smaller Shadyside, Pittsburgh had no real niche for such businesses.
By word of mouth and advertising, he began contacting people in the antiques, arts and crafts community. Within a year, there were at least a dozen of these establishments scattered along East Carson Street, his own among them. Some residents decried what they called “junk shops” and the existing businesses all but ignored them, so Charlie founded his own organization, South Side Arts, Crafts and Antiques Association, or “SACA” as he called it.
Eager to establish his creation as a Pittsburgh attraction and lure customers, SACA members began their own publicity campaign. They published brochures listing their addresses and specialties. They distributed these through the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau and Downtown hotels and attractions. They planned special sales and Christmas events. They presented an annual Fall Festival, featuring their own businesses and South Side’s ethnic foods.
The festival became an annual event, partially funded through the City of Pittsburgh. When community festivals began to proliferate, city officials said they would fund only one festival for each neighborhood. South Side now had two: SACA’s fall event and the South Side Community Council’s annual Spring Festival, a much older one.
When the city withdrew dual financial support, SACA members Marlene Montgomery and Arlene Krava came up with the idea for a joint celebration, the South Side Summer Street Spectacular. This yearly event continued until many festival goers began to see it as more of an excuse to bar hop than an event for the entire community.
During the years of SACA’s greatest triumphs, Charlie, who could be bombastic and a real pest sometimes, was disgruntled because of what he believed was a lack of acknowledgment of his and SACA’s successes. Although he was on the South Side Chamber of Commerce board, he never held office. Nor did he ever receive the chamber’s coveted “Man of the Year” award, although he did receive the chamber’s Community Service award.
Gradually, as new bars and restaurants became South Side’s main business focus, many SACA members closed their doors and went elsewhere.
Charlie soon found a new focus. Litter on East Carson after each weekend disturbed him. Nor did he like the overgrown weeds in the neighborhood’s vacant lots in prominent places. He did something about both problems.
At the beginning of each week, he took to the streets with broom and trash bags, cleaning up after revelers. He persuaded the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to donate plants and supplies and turned these eyesores into flower gardens.
Charlie continued these personal projects until he became ill with cancer. When he died, those who remembered the good things he’d done, championed by his friend Fred Flugger, paid for and erected a small memorial monument in the 11th Street garden.
Perhaps the ultimate confirmation of the community’s failure to acknowledge Charlie Samaha’s good works came when another group took over the responsibility for that garden, casting aside Charlie’s memorial in making renovations to the garden.
“Nobody knows who Charlie Samaha was,” one new South Sider said. “People think he’s buried there.”
Not physically there, perhaps. But for those few who still remember him, his spirit still lives there.
(Roberta Smith is the retired editor and publisher of the South Pittsburgh Reporter)